The following article is a brief guide to hitchhiking the East Coast of the United States, but most of the tips mentioned can be applied to hitchhiking in other countries as well.
Who am I to give advice on this? Well, two years ago I ended a three-year relationship with my American girlfriend. This breakup left me with pricey plane tickets from Brussels to Boston, as the plan had been to stay with her in Massachusetts all summer. Rather than wasting these tickets and continuing to indulge in chocolate and sad R&B songs, I decided to embark on an epic two-month odyssey aimed at getting to know both the beautiful country that is America as well as myself.
I arrived in Boston and then proceeded to zigzag my way down to Miami in a series of totally illogical routes, going back and forth between big cities, rural towns and several national parks. I had the time of my life and it changed me forever. I’d never felt so intensely alive before and I even ended up printing a 125-page diary about it. If I can help people do something similar, I want to use that opportunity. So for anyone interested, I wrote down the main points you should think about!
Time Frame & Budget
How much money and time do you have available to you? This is the first thing you should write down. If you have a lot of money for the time allotted, great! You can be as frugal as you want and still rest assured that you got some emergency funds at your fingertips. If on the other hand you have lots of time but little money, then the next step is figuring out how comfortable you’d be living the hobo lifestyle for a while. Be honest with yourself. There are many beautiful ways to travel smart and stretch out money for a long time, but this invariably comes with a certain vulnerability and way less comfort and convenience. Traveling through America as a penniless wanderer can be an invigorating and truly spiritual experience, but it’s also a real commitment. You’re going to have bad days. If you prefer things feeling easy and smooth, consider using your small budget on a shorter trip. Calculate a weekly budget and stick to it. This works better than a daily budget, because those get easily derailed by unexpected expenses. Include food, transport, accommodation, misc. (museum tickets, national park entrance fees, whatever) and a small margin for when things go wrong.
I’ve hitchhiked in five countries and I’ve covered thousands of miles. On all those travels, it’s only happened to me once that I just could not get a damn ride and opted to take a Greyhound bus instead (screw you, Myrtle Beach). Generally speaking, it’s just a matter of time until someone picks you up, you’ll get there eventually. A few tips:
- Read up on the law for the specific state you’re in. It usually comes down to this: Stand next to the road, not on it, and definitely not on the highway (but the on-ramp is fair game up to the ‘no pedestrians’ sign). Now, even if you obey the law, you’re going to encounter a lot of police when you try this in the US, simply because hitchhiking is not a very common thing anymore and police officers are often ignorant of the law themselves. It helps to print out the law and bring it with you. Be assertive but very polite. In my experience, they’ll either let you be after checking your ID or they’ll remove you from the spot and you’ll have to try elsewhere. Besides on-ramps and local roads, you can always try approaching people at gas stations and truck stops. Based on personal experience, I would advise against hitchhiking in over-policed Florida. The New York City area is not a great idea either. Most other places are pretty doable. Small towns are always easier than big cities, because rural folks are less distrustful of others.
- Look unthreatening! Don’t go stand there dressed like Neo from The Matrix.
- Choose a spot where cars can pull over without crazy maneuvers. They need to have some time to see you stand there, make a decision and pull over. If you stand right behind a curve, they won’t have that time.
- Make sure to put your drivers at ease through conversation. You want them to feel good about their choice, and you might make a friend or get invited to a home.
- Bring cardboard and a marker in case you want to make a sign.
- Bring enough snacks and water to last a number of hours because you often end up in the middle of nowhere.
- Don’t hitchhike after dark. More creepy people, and people will find you creepy.
- On staying safe: When a car pulls over, talk to the driver for a minute and try to get a good feel for his energy. Pay attention to body language and eye contact. If you get any bad vibes at all, choose safety over politeness and just walk away with whatever silly excuse you come up with ( e.g. “I think I’m gonna wait for a ride all the way to Philly, but thanks anyway!”). No worries though, the people pulling over will overwhelmingly be awesome human beings. This is especially true in the United States. Why? Well, hitchhiking used to be an integral part of the culture but isn’t anymore. This means fewer people will pull over, but it also means that the people who defy cultural conventions and do pull over tend to make for absolutely wonderful, unforgettable encounters. It’s like a cultural filter that only allows for open-minded people to seep through.
- If at any point you feel like taking a break from hitchhiking, you can use low-cost companies like Greyhound and Megabus to get around. Even this can prove to be quite the adventure.
- For more tips and info specifically on hitchhiking, check out Hitchwiki, it’s a great resource!
Your best options to spend the night without wasting lots of money are hospitality networks (l recommend Couchsurfing and Trustroots) and camping. The basic idea behind hospitality networks is that people offer to host travelers for free in their homes and that in doing so, you can make some beautiful friendships and the traveler can really get to know a city from the perspective of a local. Camping, on the other hand, can be done legally wherever you find a campsite, or let’s say “for free” if you just find a quiet bush somewhere. This is called ‘wild camping’ or ‘stealth camping’. Keep the following in mind if you choose to go down this route: Don’t make fires, don’t leave trash, leave early in the morning to avoid people, do your research on dealing with dangerous animals and oh, enjoy the hell out of it, because it’s amazing! If all of this fails, you can ask people if you can pitch your tent on their front lawn (and you might just get invited in) or you can get a room for fifty bucks at a place like Motel 6.
Eating is expensive, generally speaking. Whenever possible, choose supermarkets over restaurants and on those occasions where you can use your host’s kitchen to cook, do so. When you buy food, try to think of products in terms of calories and nutrients to keep you going, not in terms of taste. Hitchhiking all day can be exhausting and you need to stay healthy. People will shower you with local delicacies anyway, so don’t worry about that part.
Hitchhiking, Couchsurfing, walking around with a backpack and camping in national parks all guarantee that you’ll meet a lot of people interested in talking to you. Be friendly, be yourself and open yourself up to the world. Friends, romance and adventure will follow.
If you want to travel all or part of the way with a travel buddy (which I did here and there), there are numerous groups on Couchsurfing and Facebook specifically for that. It can be a blessing to share this experience, but be clear about your expectations and reserve your right to go solo at any point.
Where To Go
If you’re not sure where to go on this big stretch of land, here are a few ideas worth checking out:
- Boston, Salem and Amherst in Massachusetts: Nice towns, good communities, lots of Couchsurfing hosts.
- New York City: Go out and get lost in Chinatown, Spanish Harlem or Brooklyn. You’ve got to see this place at least once in your life, and there’s no telling what you’ll discover. I even slept on a bashed-up boat out in the Bronx.
- Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Good place to check out both the countryside and the Amish.
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever witnessed. Did meet a few bears and rattlesnakes, but that’s part of the adventure, right?
- Asheville, North Carolina: My favorite place in the US so far. Very odd hippy enclave in the middle of the Bible Belt, nestled in the natural paradise known as the Blue Ridge Mountains.
- Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia: Two beautiful old colonial cities in the South.
- Miami: I personally like salsa music and burritos a lot. If you’re into the Latin vibes, you’re gonna love it. Even though it’s in the US, it’s considered the ‘Capital of Latin America’ and the city has a Spanish-speaking majority.
On a more philosophical note, what are you trying to accomplish here? Ya, traveling is fun, you like to meet new people, bla di bla, but it can be even more than that if you want it to be. You’re going to spend a lot of time outside of your comfort zone. You’ll encounter new people and situations all day, every day. You’ll experience everything from complete euphoria to exhaustion and deep frustration. How would you like to evolve as a human being? Be more sociable, maybe? More confident being by yourself, more street-smart, more proficient in English? Whatever it is, know that this period of your life can and should be incredibly fun, but that it also offers a big educational opportunity for you to shape your future and become the person you want to be.
May the road rise up to meet you.